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Dvar Torah - Simon Goldstein

When G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, was it a violation of Pharoah’s free will?


Hello everybody, my name is Simon Goldstein and today I shall be talking about my parasha, Va’eira. Va’eira is Exodus 6:2 – 9:35.

In this portion, the Israelites have been slaves in Egypt for generations and G-d decides that now is the time to keep his promise with the people of Israel and free them from bondage. He instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that G-d will free them, but the Israelites do not listen to Moses because their spirits are crushed by many years of cruel bondage. Then G-d tells Moses to ask Pharaoh, who is their oppressor, to let his people go. Moses objects because he had a speech impediment and thought that they would not listen, so G-d tells Moses to tell his brother Aaron what G-d communicates to Moses and Aaron shall speak for him. G-d then says that He shall harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that when he does not obey Aaron and Moses, He may multiply His signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and, of course, he refuses, even after seeing Aaron’s rod turn into a serpent. Then Moses is instructed to take Aaron’s staff and turn all the bodies of water in Egypt to blood. This is the first of many plagues to come. It should be noted that this plague is not deadly because the Egyptians could just dig wells in the sand to get water. It is an inconvenience and foreshadowing for worse plagues later. When Pharaoh’s magician-priest could replicate turning water to blood though, Pharaoh stiffened his heart and refused to let the Israelites go. Moses is instructed to go ask Pharaoh to let his people go. Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses and this time, frogs rise from the Nile and cover all the ground. Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and says that if they get rid of the frogs, he will let the Israelites go.

We all know from our Seder that Pharaoh did not let the people go. This pattern roughly repeats for the 7 plagues that are part of Va’eira. The seven plagues were: The waters of the Nile turned to blood, frogs overwhelm the land, lice infest people and animals, swarms of insects eat all of the crops, an illness infects the livestock, boils break out on man and beast, and finally, fiery hail strikes down all of the grasses and trees of the field.

The theme I would like to talk about today is free will. There are a few times in the portion where it says: Pharaoh was stubborn, Pharaoh hardened his heart, or Pharaoh remained stubborn, but there are also a few parts where it says that the Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh, for example, in Exodus 9:12, after the plague of boils, or in Exodus 7:3 where the Lord says “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels throughout the land of Egypt”.

This begs the question, did Pharaoh have free will or did G-d make him stubborn, and do any of us have free will?

This question interested me because I like big philosophical question.

Many Rabbis have a lot to say about free will. It is a fundamental belief of Judaism that we have the ability to choose if we want to do good deeds. In Deuteronomy, G-d says “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life”. Maimonides was a strong believer that people could choose their fate.

Rabbi Sforno said that actually G-d had not taken away Pharaoh’s free will, but rather emboldened him to commit to his ideas because He did not want Pharaoh to give up out of fear, but rather genuine realisation that G-d was the only real, all-powerful G-d.

Rabbi Simon ben Lakish said that Pharaoh had five chances first, and chose to harden his own heart. G-d helps the person travel down the road that they are already on.

Rabbi Emma suggested that even though free will was a fundamental part of the world, maybe in this one case, G-d made an exception and made an example out of Pharaoh, and it worked, because we are still talking about it.

My own inclination is to agree partly with Rabbi Sforno– I do think that Pharoah still had his own free will, and that G-d was just strengthening his resolve to follow it. But I disagree that this was for Pharoah to learn to respect G-d, it was more a sign to all Egyptians and everyone that follows of how their gods were not true G-ds and that the true G-d had power over everything.

Generally, I think that we do have the ability to choose our own path. It is more meaningful when you choose to do the right thing than when you are forced to do it. The whole point of doing the right thing, is that we have a choice on whether to do it or not.

Aristotle wrote that humans are responsible for the actions they freely choose to do.

I have grown up in a family with a rich cultural heritage, and where I could choose whether I wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah or not. I used my free choice to have one.

In a world where we have so many options, having the conviction to make the right choice is especially important.

Getting to this point took a lot of support, and I’d really like to thank Mel, Janine, Dani, and Venessa for their help with their lessons and of course Rabbi Emma that guided us here. I’d also like to make a special mention of my Safta and Sabba who came all the way from Canada. Hello to my family in Canada, the USA and Israel that are watching over zoom, and last but not least a special thanks to all of you that are here today, and have supported everything I have chosen to do.


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